How the Cortes Fire Department responded to the fire

(Editor’s note: The article about the Nov 23, 2022 fire that follows is an edited transcript of an audio file. Also, a GoFundMe page has been started to support Sandy Emmonds, who lost her home and all her belongings in the fire:

By Mark Vonesch

Mark Vonesch: I’m here with Eli McKenney, the Interim Fire Chief from Cortes Island. Eli, wow, what a night last night …

Eli McKenty: Yeah. It was a short night as far as sleep goes, and a long night in every other way.

Mark: Can you tell us what happened? Tell us the details.

Related: Apartment Fire at Klahoose Health Centre

Eli: At 9:42 PM we got a call for a structure fire with multiple structures involved. Assistant Chief Mac Diver, the former fire chief was on duty. So he was on command and we rolled all of our trucks. We had quite a good response and got up there. I think we had trucks arriving cuz , the members all have to respond to their halls and then get kitted out and respond in trucks. But I think we had pumpers and tankers on scene about 15 minutes after the call from nine one one.

Mark: Wow, that seems pretty quick.

Eli: Yeah, it’s a quite a good response. It depends where a fire is.

Actually, this is something that we have discussed with Klahoose and is going to come up again. They’re considering building a third hall at Klahoose, which would speed up a response. But, given the drive times involved, we were there as fast as as possible on. So that was good. The other thing that really served us is that Klahoose has a huge water system with fire hydrants. It’s the only hydrant protected neighborhood on the island.

So knowing that, we were able to really use our resources well. Mac arrived first and did the initial assessment and then as we arrived… We took a hydrant with our pumper truck. Our new tender has a monitor, like a big deck gun that’ll empty the 2000 gallon tank in a matter of minutes. So we rolled that right up in front of the main building that we were attempting to protect, and we’re able to shoot over it and really knock things down fast.

It’s a cluster of buildings. There’s a larger public space, and then there was four small houses behind it. Three of them were fully involved when we arrived and the backside of the public space was also on fire. We managed to knock that down and save the public building and the fourth house.

Mark: So you showed up, there’s three houses and a public building on fire.

Eli: Yeah, the public building was just starting to go up. So it was the upper wall face towards the rest of the fire, which was down wind of the fire. The fire started in the center of the up wind side of this little cluster of buildings, and it had spread from there.

We had a really good response from our crew. Things went as we trained for them to go and we made good use of the Klahoose water supplies, which are the best on the island for that kind of thing.

Mark: It’s amazing the response time and just the fact that you were able to save like a pretty major public building from going up in flames.

Eli: I’m pretty happy with that. It was a very slow incident to wind down because a partially burnt building that we can’t safely go into is a very difficult thing to mop up all the spot fires and hot spots and stuff. So the final couple of hours was just going round and round each of the buildings and getting access to as many areas as we could.

We have a couple of thermal imaging cameras that we surveyed everything with. Then there was actually one wall section that caught up later in the night. We got a second call around, I think it was 6:30 AM but that was only took us a minute to knock down once we got there, and then we overhauled that all a second time and put it out.

Mark: The recent challenges to the Cortes Fire Department around your ability to respond to things and your level of training. I think there was even a recommendation that, for the safety of the public, you should be shut down.

Eli: Yeah. I’m really glad we weren’t shut down prior to this, because it would’ve been a terrible story if we hadn’t had a fire department to respond to that. I think this demonstrates that we are able to respond safely and effectively to an emergency and, deal with whatever comes.

Mark: Thanks. Well, I appreciate you, appreciate you sharing this. I’m gonna pass it on to the community. I think it’s like a really incredible story and I’m so grateful that we have so many volunteers in the island that are so quick to respond. It’s the volunteers that make it happen.

You were telling me that when a fire happens often that’s people are more set to join.

Eli: Yeah. It’s always increases interest in joining the department, which is great. I mean, it’s, it’s a terrible way for it to happen, but it’s great that it does happen.

Mark: So you had somebody call you?

Eli: Yeah. I already had somebody text me this morning. It’s when we’re out there in the community and people see the need for it and what we do. It encourages people to join.

Mark: Any lessons for the community from this that is gonna be helpful for us to think about?

Eli: In the long run, if there are developments going in, like Rainbow Ridge or whatever, hydrant protection is huge and sprinkler protection too. The statistics around home sprinkler protection are fairly impressive.

Otherwise, one thing that I definitely took note of is some of the fire smart guidelines, like having closed soffits -the backside of the public building had properly closed soffits otherwise it probably would’ve burnt. That kind of thing is important, specifically for wildfires, but anytime you have fire exposure all the same things apply. So if you have buildings close together and they’re following the fire smart protocols, they’re going to be much easier to protect.

Mark: And the likelihood of being able to save increases.

Eli: Yeah. That’s really important.

Mark: Sweet, well, thank you Eli.

Eli: Thanks Mark, we’ll talk to you soon.

Top image credit: courtesy Mark Vonesch